RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Kansas State Legislature
DOCKET NO.: 89 ORIG
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
CITATION: 457 US 273 (1982)
ARGUED: Mar 29, 1982
DECIDED: Jun 18, 1982
Bruce S. Flushman - on behalf of the Plaintiff
Louis F. Claiborne - on behalf of the Defendant
Facts of the case
Media for California ex rel. State Lands Commission v. United States
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 29, 1982 in California ex rel. State Lands Commission v. United States
Warren E. Burger:
We will hear arguments first this morning in California against the United States.
Mr. Flushman, you may proceed whenever you are ready.
Bruce S. Flushman:
Chief Justice Burger, and may it please the Court, this choice of law case arises under the original jurisdiction of this Court.
California was granted leave to file a complaint seeking to acquire title to certain coastal lands which under undisputed California law belong to the state.
The matter is now before the Court on California's motion for summary judgment and the United States cross-motion for a judgment on the pleadings.
At its heart, this case concerns the federal system defining the relationship between the state and national sovereign.
The issue is whether the United States can interfere with fundamental state sovereign attributes long recognized by this Court that state law decides conflicts over state sovereign lands.
Here, if the United States were not the upland owner, it would be unquestioned but that California would own the disputed land.
The result should not differ merely because the United States is that owner.
The facts are few and are not contested.
Before the late 1880's, the disputed land lay north of the entrance channel to Humboldt Bay, California, and below the ordinary high water mark along the Coast Guard site.
In the late 1880's, two rubble mound jetties were built to stabilize this entrance channel by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Most particularly concerned is the north jetty, which according to an undisputed government report, formed a barrier to the down-coast drift of sand suspended in the ocean.
As a result, the shoreline along the Coast Guard site moved seaward almost two-thirds of a mile at the jetty.
Comparison of maps showing the unjettied entrance with maps after the jetties were built shows the progressive, dramatic boundary changes.
California has lodged with the Court a blown-up exhibit of a series of such maps.
That this shoreline change would not have occurred as a result of natural wave and tidal action unaided by the jetty barrier may best be shown by an examination of a 1915 map showing the north jetty destroyed.
During that time, the jetty ceased to function as a barrier to the down-coast drift of sand and the shoreline reverted to its natural configuration.
Once the jetty was rebuilt, the artificial deposition process continued, covering up and filling in the land, resulting in the current coastline configuration.
Never considered part of the Coast Guard site, the land remains barren and unused.
The Coast Guard even applied to California for use of the land, which the Coast Guard characterized as
"artificially accredited land belonging to California. "
Only belatedly did the United States assert that it owned this artificially accredited land according to federal law applied by virtue of the rule of Hughes versus Washington.
After some peregrinations, this is now the essential position of the United States before this Court.
The state has not been exactly consistent.
Bruce S. Flushman:
We believe our position has been consistent.
Well, you have not abandoned a single part of any of your claims.
Bruce S. Flushman:
I do not believe so, Justice White.
Our position is quite simple.
I take it you are not asserting any estoppel principle against the United States for having applied--